Published: August 28th 2011July 2nd 2011
Potosi, about 500 years ago, was once the town that funded the Spanish Empire. It has been said the Spanish could have built a bridge made of silver to cross the Atlantic Ocean, and still have had plenty to spare.
Today, Bolivian miners willfully go into the sheer depths of hell in hopes of the one big strike of luck. Boys start around age eight to ten learning the ropes. They work as the "runners", helping with jobs outside the mines. By age fourteen or fifteen, they are ready to descend below. Deep down, the mines go as far as seventy levels, some of those accessed by shifting and rickety ladders straight down. Here, waits their fate. Work in these places has not changed much in the last hundred years. The earth dug by hand (and any precious bits of metal) is still brought to the surface in age-old wooden cars pushed by brute force, along tracks used through the ages.
A miner is never guaranteed the big strike. . . in fact most live on a couple hundred dollars a month. There is a fairly certain guarantee, however, that is much more sinister. Most miners will within ten
Miners eating their breakfast.
years have breathed so many toxic fumes that their lungs are incapacitated from silicosis to the point that they must quit work. Within fifteen to twenty years, many will be dead. Their widows and children are left with a pension of about US$15 a month. A boy that starts at age fifteen may be lucky to reach his 30th birthday. Bolivia. Welcome to the poorest country in South America. For some, there is no other choice of work. Go down deep, or go hungry.
To tour the mines is sobering. Yes, you can go down in them and see the miners at work. There is no “safety commission”, and you must come to grips with the hazards of such a trip deep down, including the fumes. Anything can happen. If there were a collapse of a hundred year old tunnel, this is Bolivia, not Chile. There will not be a rescue. At least one or two men die per month in accidents.
I thought long and hard about whether or not to take a tour down under. I sought advice from people that had already gone, and in the end I decided although it would be a risky
day, I would go. I made sure to NOT tell my husband or mother until I had already finished the tour.
I went down with a 29 year old Bolivian named Emilio. He himself had been a full-time miner most of his teen and adult years. Now, he tries to work in tourism of the mines. On evenings, he is a desk clerk at the hotel I stayed at. On most weekends, he still mines to supplicate his income.
Although Emilio looks painfully thin, with a taut face, he told me he is healthy without lung problems. I do not know if this was delusional or truthful. I hope it’s the later. Emilio loves to play basketball, and his number one dream is to go to America and see a live NBA game. I do so hope you get to go one day, Emilio.
The morning of our tour started at the hotel in the back room. We put on rubber boots, water and mud proof pants and jackets, and a mining helmet with light and battery attached. Emilio then led me through the town and on two different buses to get to the mine. I felt
Coca leaves & cigarettes.
Gotta make Tio Jorge happy.
like an absolute idiot tourist puttering through town in my mining attire. My outfit screamed, “Hey, look at me, guess what I’m about to do!” In any country of Asia, I would have been the focal point of attention. All eyes on me, and comments to the left and right. Not so in South America. They seem to take it all in stride, and never do they stare. It’s so refreshing, especially when you look such a “poser.”
Before entering the mine, Emilio showed me the place where miners congregate to eat breakfast, chat, chew some coca, and perhaps have a quick smoke. Then we went to the “store,” a tiny closet on the street with a little old lady peeking out. That is where the miners buy dynamite. Well, it isn’t really the miners who buy the dynamite. That is usually the job of the young boys. Imagine. In my country, kids can’t buy alcohol until age 21. In Potosi, pretty much by the time you are old enough to toddle on off to the store and ask for it, you can buy dynamite.
“Would you like to buy some to blow up?” Emilio asked. Heck, yeah
Buying the dynamite.
I would!!!!! Not going to get that question again any time soon in life. So I bought two sticks for 15 soles (two dollars). I also bought some coca leaves, cigarettes, and alcohol to give the miners. This is expected of a visitor going into the mines. With that all in hand, we were ready for the plunge down.
I made it clear to Emilio that I didn’t want to go down very deep. Emilio just kept saying, “Slowly, slowly, watching head, watching head.” His English might not be perfect, but I got the gist after I banged my helmet several times from not ducking down low enough.
Several times I said I wanted to turn around, but Emilio kept saying, “Little bit further to Tio Jorge, slowly, slowly, watching head, watching head.”
So I went as far as Tio Jorge. This is the idol statue of the mine. He is one scary looking character. Looks like the devil on a really bad day. The miners mean him to look like that, as he represents all that can happen to them down there in their personal hells.
Here, at Tio Jorge, miners stop daily, weekly, or
Having a break.
whenever the mood strikes, to pay him homage. This includes giving him some coca leaves, sprinkling some booze on him, and sticking a lighted cigarette in his devilish little mouth. They hope this appeases him and keeps them safe. What I find most interesting in this ritual, is that most of these miners are Catholic and go to mass on Sunday. Prime example of syncretism I suppose.
After Emilio showed me the ritual for Tio Jorge, we went back up and out of the mine. I had the option of going down a lot further, but I had the gist of being in there, and that was it for this scaredy cat.
I can’t explain how welcome it was to see the daylight again. I was down there for about 45 minutes, keeping a panic attack at bay. The miners are down there ten hours a day, six days a week. As I so try to impress on my students back home, we do not know nor have the capacity to understand how lucky we are to have been born in a rich country.
Once back up top, Emilio was going to blow up my dynamite. Basically,
The mining mountain.
Where dreams begin or end.
once you light the fuse you have four minutes to run away….far away! That is. . . IF THE LITTLE OLD LADY at the dynamite store remembers to include the fuses! What luck, I couldn’t blow up stuff. No fuse, no ‘plosion. A little bit of a disappointment. We could have gone and got some fuses, but I was ready to get the goofy gear off so I said to skip it. Anyway, I didn’t need dynamite to drive home the point that these miners have some of the world’s most dangerous and awful jobs.
I’ve heard there is an excellent documentary film about these Potosi miners, called “The Devil’s Miners.”
If you are reading this and plan on taking a tour of a Potosi mine, I highly recommend Emilio. You can find him at Las Tres Portadas Hotel in Potosi on Bolivar avenue (www.tresportadas.com). In 2011, it cost 80 soles, payable to the hotel.
There are more photos below